In fictional Hollywood films, people expect to be tricked and misled — it's all part of the show. In contrast, viewers of science-based documentaries expect accuracy, authenticity, and truth. Unfortunately, viewers of wildlife programming are routinely deceived with staged and manipulated footage, false information and animal harassment used to achieve the images they see.
Fake documentaries and fabricated evidence are increasing occurrences in wildlife and environmental programming. These programs lead the public to believe that they are based on genuine science, when, in fact, the science is largely phony. Even worse, viewers are unaware of what is real and what is fake due to a lack of disclosure on behalf of the programmers. Audiences are predisposed to believing false programming if no prominent disclaimers are provided.
Whereas inaccurate portrayals of animals and fake documentaries might irritate some portion of viewers, old-fashioned staging, fabrication and trickery would likely irritate a large number of viewers as well — if they only knew about it. Wildlife filmmakers often pretend captive and controlled animals from game farms are wild and free-roaming, stage events to make them look real, and use computer graphics to manipulate images.
Of all of the ethical issues involved in wildlife films and filmmaking, animal harassment is one of the most troubling as well as one of the most challenging to combat. Most of the cruelty happens out in the field, with no witnesses to stop it or point it out to television audiences. This animal abuse and harassment ranges from simply getting too close and disturbing animals to deliberately goading, harming, or even killing them. Many filmmakers successfully fight the constant pressure from the networks to sensationalize, exaggerate and stage scenes in their work; however, broadcasters have successfully pushed filmmakers to create shows unethically in order to achieve higher ratings. More and more networks are broadcasting nature shows about people who wrangle, mistreat and slaughter innocent animals like alligators, catfish, wild hogs and snakes.
This cruelty seems to contradict the professed values of the networks airing these shows. Yet it proliferates because it enhances ratings and profits for the broadcasters. These wildlife programs desensitize viewers, including impressionable children, to the reality of hurting living things. When audiences see animal harassment and cruelty on television, the abuse gains a gloss of legitimacy. Healthy, compassionate societies don't treat animals as disposable property. The more we humans learn about animals' consciousness, the more we must reassess our relationship with them. Even beyond that, however, we must realize that promoting brutality as entertainment is preying on the worst, most base parts of human nature.
Here is our problem: entertainment value has usurped the values of ethics and education in environmental and wildlife films and programming. However, films can tell the truth and entertain and inspire audiences. The grimmest material can be palatable if it's paired with dramatic story elements and offers solutions to the problems it documents. There's no need to deceive the audience and risk losing their trust. What's more, it's unfair to trick audiences or hold back the truth. Honesty is the key to building trust with audiences. Honesty can lead to a new era of wildlife filmmaking in which conscientious filmmakers engage conscientious viewers in a real dialogue about the state of our shared planet.
Paul Rosolie grapples with an anaconda while wearing a protective suit in the Discovery Channel special "Eaten Alive." The special was meant to show the anaconda eating Rosolie, but the stunt was called off due to concerns over Rosolie's safety. (Photo: Daily Motion)
Indeed, the viewing public does bear some of the responsibility for the content of wildlife films. The networks offer films that they think will attract viewers. If people didn't watch lurid wildlife films, there would be no lurid wildlife films. The networks are not in an easy position. In the intense pursuit of high ratings, broadcasters constantly need to ramp up the shock and awe just to maintain viewers' attention. But broadcasters cannot escape their ultimate responsibility by blaming viewers. It is the broadcasters who pay for the programs and choose what to air: The buck stops with them.
A change needs to happen now. What needs to be done? And by whom?
Viewers must contact the men and women who run these networks, as well as their advertisers and corporate sponsors, and demand that they improve the quality of their programs and that they think about more than just ratings. Filmmakers must resist the temptation to cut corners to raise their incomes and meet deadlines. They must resist network executive producers who push for irresponsibly obtained footage. Critics' reviews should routinely gauge the programs' honesty, promotion of conservation, and treatment and depiction of animals. Networks, which commission the shows and decide what to air, must bear responsibility for the programs they broadcast. They are not powerless pawns pushed around by the public's appetite for exciting and tasteless distractions.
In the more than thirty years I've spent producing wildlife films, I've been impressed by the power of video images to raise environmental and wildlife awareness. Film, television and online documentaries truly can inspire people to make positive changes in their lives and in their relationships with the environment. Despite my criticism of today's nature films as being exploitative and damaging to conservation, I still strongly believe in their power. I am optimistic that if viewers knew what they were really seeing — or if they at least knew to ask the right questions — many would consider changing what they watch. They would recognize their role and responsibility for what rises to the top shelf in the media marketplace of ideas.
We, as consumers of media, make a choice every time we flip a channel or click a mouse. We have the opportunity to select films that don't harm animals, that don't deceive audiences, and that promote conservation of the natural world. It is time to bring about a new era of wildlife filmmaking and make the world a better place for other species as well as our own.
Professor Chris Palmer is the director of American University's Center for Environmental Filmmaking and author of the newly published book "Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker: The Challenges of Staying Honest in an Industry Where Ratings are King." Shannon Lawrence is a filmmaker and MFA candidate at American University.
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